Category Archives: homesteading

Green(-washed) Kid Lit

The other night, I read Lil’ H a title we picked up from the library this past weekend: Dora Saves Mermaid Kingdom.

***Warning: Spoilers Ahead!***

Well, as much as there can be surprises and spoilers in a Dora book… :-D

In this particular work, our intrepid bilingual heroine assists mermaids whose kingdom is imperiled by a mean octopus who dumps trash in the ocean. The mermaid princess tries to get a magic wishing crown to set things to right but is captured by the mean octopus. Dora finds the crown, transforms into a mermaid, and uses the magic wish power in an attempt to clean up the kingdom. The wish is not entirely successful, so she gathers her mermaid friends to clean things up. She then saves the mermaid princess and the octopus is left covered in his own filth.

There were two things here I liked:

  1. The environment was an issue to be placed before children, and
  2. wishing alone doesn’t solve the problem; it takes collective and personal action to clean things up.

Overall, however, the book left me a bit annoyed… The offense? green-washing. The perpetrators? The entertainment industry with the collusion of the latte liberal set.

The take-away message for little children is not a bad one: trash doesn’t belong in our oceans; we need to clean up trash when we see it even if we didn’t put it there.

The take-away for parents and anyone old enough to see through the paper-thin allegory is what bothers me: we are righteous when we raise children’s consciousness about environmental issues; we are righteous in our disdain for greedy corporate interests (obviously played in this case by the trash-dumping octopus).

This message and this way of framing the debate and the moral meaning is a common one from the left-leaning entertainment industry. The theme of righteous good guy taking on illegal and unprincipled corporate trash dumpers is a staple of both action films (I’m thinking, for example, of an unfortunate Steven Segal movie here among others) and children’s material (I believe this was the central conflict in the cute penguin movie “Happy Feet” from a few years back). It’s one favored by latte liberals, but I find it fundamentally flawed. Yes, our kids need to hear environmental messages but this one misses a much more important and much deeper issue.

In a lull in the conversation about Lil’ G’s school day last night at dinner, I brought up the book. We talked for a little bit about two simple questions:

  1. Where did the mean octopus get his nasty trash from?
  2. After Dora and her mermaid friends cleaned up–where did they put the trash that they collected?

An obvious answer here is: the same place.

Who’s the real villain in this story? Is it the octopus (yes, certainly), or is it also the people who consume “disposable” items that are in turn thrown away for the octopus and his ilk to dump willy-nilly?

Latte liberals and the entertainment industry like the idea that trash shouldn’t be dumped in the environment. Not in the oceans, not in our forests–not even in our landfills. And there’s much to commend this. But they pass in silence over the deeper and more fundamental issue: We are the ones who generate the trash that gets dumped. The key isn’t bashing an easy and obvious target–those greedy corporate interests (thankfully the lattes were paid for by bartering hand-woven organically-grown hemp items; God forbid our latte-sippin’ superiors actually work for corporate employers…)–rather the key is raising awareness about what we do and how our unthinking acts of consumption and disposal cause the problem in the first place.

So I asked Lil’ G what Dora and her friends could do to reduce their trash. She told me (quite earnestly) that they need to do more recycling and composting. M then explained that this why we pack her lunch in her lunch box in washable containers rather than “disposable” bags and juice-boxes. (Yes, I’m indulging in some smug self-righteousness here…) That’s the message that I’d like to see the entertainment industry take up–but, hey, they too are an industry that depends on consumption and disposable content for their survival.

One of our new family rituals here is morning composting time. Before G gets on the bus for kindergarten, we take take our accumulated food scraps out to the compost pile, bury them, water the pile if needed, and check in on our small contingent of herbs. (I’ve got bugs in my basil and yellowing on my lavender; too, our compost pile has acquired a small swarm of fruit-flies—something’s not right in our method….)

So, last night for bedtime after reading about Princess Jasmine we read a nice children’s book (with great watercolors) on composting, Compost! Growing Gardens from your Garbage by Linda Glaser. My favorite part was the way Lil’ H kept interrupting me as I read: “Hey! I do dat! I compost!”

Random Political/Economic Note

If my guess is good, expect to see a bit more about Peak Oil in the news media–especially in reporting that ultimately comes from European sources.

Whether they believe in the Peak Oil concept or not, in the aftermath of their Georgian adventure it is in Russia’s best interest to publicize it as much as they can in Europe. That is, with functional control of the GTC pipeline and being the largest Eurasian oil producer, they will want Europe to get the idea that if the continent wants oil in the future it will be coming through them…

The Current State of Oil Prices

Check out this post: watch the clip, read the text.

Just a reminder, CNBC has a lot of money and industry knowledge. They don’t invite flakes to speak unless they plan on ridiculing them afterward.

There recently been a call for a new “Marshall Plan” to rebuild a less oil-dependent economy and some Brits have put out a Green New Deal. I haven’t read ’em yet so can’t comment with any intelligence. Broadly though, I’m no watermelon–green on the outside, pink in the middle–I still think a primarily capitalist market is the best game going. However, my understanding is that the “invisible hand” of the market is not fundamentally a stupid hand. That is, market dynamics and a strong capitalist system are rooted in the notion of informed concerned participants who encourage market change by how, when, and where they spend their money. The complexities of international business in the age of multinational corporations and conglomerates makes it a hell of a lot harder to be an informed consumer. I’ll acknowledge the difficulty, but that it no way gets us off the hook.

From my perspective let me make this really simple:

  • **REDUCE**
  • Reuse
  • recycle

One of the great benefits of our move is that we get the chance to purge some of the accumulated mass of crap that we have for no particular reason. I’ll admit this pains me as I have pack-rat tendencies, but a simpler, cleaner, clearer life is one of the ways that we hear the Gospel calling us to embody ourselves in the world.

Thoughts on Transitioning to More Food Production and Raised Bed Gardens

M and I are getting more and more frustrated with our temporary living situation which has existed for…well…since we were married (almost 9 years now)… And by that I mean the fact that we’re always on the move, without roots. That’s one of the factors that’s prompting this coming move. We want to get a place of our own where we’re going to be a while.

One of the ways this has played out is that we’ve been restricted to very limited container gardening. Mostly herbs, peppers and tomatoes. We’d love to have a bigger, more comprehensive garden once we “arrive” but we’re just not there yet.

As we talk more about rules of life (more on that later) and sustainability and how we’d like to embody our priorities, we’re starting to see this delay as an advantage. I’m working off the fundamental notion that—diets don’t work. (Bear with me for a moment…) If you want to lose weight and keep it off, diets fundamentally don’t work. What works is long-term lifestyle adjustment. A diet is something you pick up and put down—often in cycles. A comprehensive lifestyle change is far more long term. It means changing the ways you eat food, changing how you cook, changing how you schedule your time to include time for regular exercise, etc.

I think the very same is true of making a move to sustainability. It’s one thing to get excited and to put some plants in a pot. But—like a diet—that can burn out rather quickly. (And there’s nothing wrong with doing that for fun for a season or two to test whether growing food is something you have skills/gifts for or as a casual hobby.) But if you’re serious about 1) planting a measurable percentage of your own food, 2) reducing your grocery bills, and 3) moving towards a more interdependent sustainable way of being then it actually means being “serious” about it. Like, making budgets. Analyzing your grocery store receipts. Thinking abut what and how you cook. Putting together with your family a picture of where you’d like your food growing to be in five years on a year-by-year basis. Calculating how much time, energy, and money it will take to achieve those goals. (Especially as we recognize that we both have jobs—we’re not full-time farmers…)

Or, as Jesus mentioned… “‘For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish'” (Luke 14:28-30). Of course, he was talking about counting the costs of discipleship, but the point still holds…

So—we’re seeing this delay as a time of planning, of thinking, of exploring and researching. It’s not wasted time; it’s essential if we’re going to make an long term changes in how we live.

I’ve been thinking in particular about food supply and trying to wrap my head around just how much food we’d have to produce to feed us on a regular basis. I find the best way to do this is to boil it down to completely concrete terms.We make a pretty rockin’ home-made pizza and it’s our tradition to have it every Friday—so let’s break it down:

  • Ingredients: flour, olive oil, salt, water, yeast, sugar, tomato sauce, tomato paste, basil, wine, cheese
  • Of these, realistically, we can only grow two: tomatoes and basil (which grow especially well together. Bonus!)
  • We use perhaps a cup of sauce a week spread over two crusts.
  • By my crude estimate, a cup of sauce at the consistency I like might require 5 or 6 roma tomatoes.
  • Assuming that we’d be canning quantities of sauce for our use through out the year, this means that 1 pizza a week for a year would require something on the order of 300 tomatoes.
  • How much does an average Roma plant produce in a season? (I don’t know yet…)
  • And that’s just one meal—we go through salsa like there’s no tomorrow and like tomatoes in other things as well. Suddenly the scale seems a bit more sobering, and the need for good research and planning comes to the fore…

So, keeping these kinds of things in mind, I’m going to and fro in my “spare” time to get a sense of what’s out there and what’s feasible. I may post some of what I find as the mood strikes me. And, at the moment, I’m liking what I’m reading about the efficiency of raised bed gardens—and here are three of the things I’ve been reading: a pdf from the Kansas State Ag Extension, a pdf from Purdue University with some basic construction calculations, and a website from some chump school in the state where the University of Texas holds pride of place. (Did I mention my dad and brother both graduated from UT…?)

On Apocalyptic Rhetoric

Time for a quick refresher here…

Apocalyptic is a kind of rhetoric that faith communities deploy at various times and places. Here are some of its basic characteristics: It sees current situations in the life of the community as small events set within the much larger context of a cosmic battle. We’re bit players, but what we do is nevertheless quite important. It’s fundamentally dualistic—the conflict is between the forces of good and evil. There’s no grey area; you’re either with us or against us and it’s your behavior that shows which side you’re on. Things may be bad now (or in the near future) but things are about to get a whole lot worse, usually including world-wide cataclysm. There is good news, though, there is a remnant who will be saved and it’s those who are on the side of good now—who behave correctly now.

Oversimplification, of course, but this is what we see in the book of Revelation, sprinkled throughout Gregory the Great’s homilies, etc.

It’s not a purely ancient phenomenon though, and the faith communities that use it need not be religious. Ideological faith communities deploy it also. Early Communism certainly did with the narrative of the class struggle and the future paradise of the workers. Cold War America did with us against the Evil Empire with the threat of thermonuclear war hanging over it all.

It’s also alive and well today and I catch hints of it in some current discussions of peak oil—like in this broadcast that bls has up.

So, what do we make of this? I’d like to offer two points to keep us on an even keel when dealing with apocalyptic:

  1. Just because it’s apocalyptic doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Apocalyptic is a form of rhetoric designed to produce results. It uses the concept of future worldwide disaster as a means of increasing urgency and putting day-to-day often very mundane actions as important on a cosmic scale. While the urgency may be misplaced, it doesn’t mean the actions promoted are necessarily out of line.
  2. Watch the dualism. Apocalyptic tends to derive a lot of its power through the deployment of dualistic categories and this is precisely where its greatest danger lies—in the demonization of those not among the “good” or the “pure”. It’s the “if you’re not part of my solution then you’re part of the problem” mentality.

I’m all for local organic gardening and for folks raising more of their own food. I’m all about teaching my daughters what my parents taught me about gardening, weeding, canning, preserving, etc. There may indeed by a worldwide cataclysm in the coming years based on a lack of cheap oil, but that’s not what fundamentally will drive my behavior. I prefer to root it in something simpler—good stewardship of God’s world.

One of the classic debates over the last half-century in biblical studies is whether apocalyptic comes from prophecy or wisdom circles. I don’t think it matters ultimately, but one takeaway that I see is that wisdom lit often enjoins the same kind of behavior as apocalyptic, just without some of its rhetorical excess. I like to think a more moderate path of living well really is the path of wisdom…

Electronic Homesteading

While I’m on this roll, I’ll mention that I see the move to open-source computing as a digital ancillary to homesteading… I loaded the latest version of Xubuntu and OpenOffice on a spare hard drive and hope to transition more to these and related technologies as part of a holistic move towards community-based resource sharing…

Suburban Homesteading

The new blog Suburban Resistance points to this promising beginning of a new series on suburban homesteading–the idea of becoming more self-sufficient in some ways but (I’d suggest) ultimately makes us more aware of our interdependencies on nature and God for what sustains us. I’ve always been into this concept but have never had the time or resources to follow through.

As a youngster in suburbia, our family had a huge garden where we grew all sorts of veggies: swiss chard, broccoli, cucumbers, squash, green beans, etc. Being from rural stock my folks were into organic gardening back in the 70’s and 80’s despite having the opposite political views one normally associates with such things. I spent a lot of time with the venerable Back to Basics (ours was the first edition) which left home when I did… Back then I decided that when I grew up I’d have chickens, goats (for milk, cheese, wool, and meat), bees, and a fishpond along with my garden and greenhouse. I was also a wanna-be herbalist. The closest I’ve come so far is a clutch of container gardens where M and I have farmed
tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in our various rented apartments and homes.

Part of this tendency in me comes from nurture—I was raised with it; it’s just what you do. Another part comes from American individualism—a desire to be entirely self-sufficient. As I’ve grown up and have acquired a more grounded sense of things, I’ve realized that the desire for self-sufficiency is an illusion and may even approach the level of delusion. I’ve now come to the place where I see this activities as moving back into a place where we begin to recognize and integrate ourselves with the mysteries of incarnate reality: the cycles of the sunrise and set, the cycles of the seasons, the cycles of wet and drought. If anything, return to a more intimate connection with our food sources helps us realize how utterly dependent we are on others for our survival. Other people, communities, creation and its Creator.

In the Rule, Benedict points towards sufficiency almost as a by-product of the redeeming value of manual labor.  He prefers when the monastics grow their own food, noting that labor of the hands joins them with the apostles and the fathers, making them “truly monks” (RB 48.8). It’s interesting to read ch. 41 from the perspective of one used to electric lights: the focus on the rhythms of the sun reminds us of how alienated we are from the natural cycles by our technology. Too, it’s worth noting the kinds of food Benedict assumes to be available in ch. 39: bread, fruit and vegetables when in season, and not four-footed animals.

My wandering mind reminds me of just how much space John Cassian allots to discussions of gluttony. Certainly he considers it a problem for monks as a full stomach leads to an increase of libido, but issues of food, food cultivation, and consumption were necessary parts of considering the spiritual life for these authors. And, for him, these topics are also linked to issues of possessions, envy, and theft. (Stories of biscuit-stealing seem to abound in certain chapters…) But when was the last time you heard anything on gluttony recently? And yet that is, as I see it, part of what the suburban homesteading movement is about: curtailing consumption, of processed and factory-farmed food, yes, but also of the cycles of gluttonous consumption which our society glorifies.

So–I’m interested in a variant of this movement that does not seek to cut itself off from others in a drive for sufficiency, but to recognize the cycles within which we exist–the healthy, the unhealthy, and those good cycles that have been altered or perverted from what they ought to be. Peak oil may be a reality in our lifetime—or not. I clearly lack the scientific chops to weigh the various arguments about human-driven climate change especially as they are repeated and distorted y various outlets. But what I can do is recognize sound theological calls for prudence, temperance, moderation, and respect for the creation within which we exist and concerning which we are stewards.